Personal Identity 5: Christian Identity

As we’ve progressed through this series on ‘identity’, we’ve turned increasingly towards the concept of ‘Christian identity’. How do we view ourselves as ‘Christians’ within a Christian community?

As Christians, the world is viewed in light of our relationship with God. This naturally affects the relationship people have with other people who also have a relationship with God. Relationship is at the heart of Christian identity. Our identity is formed through the way we relate to God through Christ. When the first Christians described themselves as ‘followers of the way’ their identity was firmly routed in their ongoing journey with Christ. That was the way in which they identified themselves. It was others from outside who originally called those first followers ‘Christians’. I use this to illustrate the deeply personal nature of the Christian faith. It is centred around a relationship with God and an ongoing task; take up your cross and follow me.

Over the past few days I’ve mentioned the existential crisis for every ‘goth’: what if I’m not goth enough? It is also at the heart of many followers of the way. What if I’m not a very good Christian? If I am honest, I have those doubts most days. I’m still awaiting the day when the diocese send someone round to my house. They will knock on my door, come into my office, go to the filing cabinet, take my holy orders and inform me that a mistake was made four years ago. “Sorry mate, you’re just not a very good Christian”. I think this is at the heart of Doctor Ruth’s post on Saturday about imitating Christ: we are called to be Christlike, we are not called to be Christ.

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Experience is a key component of our Christian identity. When someone is certain of their faith, it can be a benchmark that others will be unconsciously compared to. When someone’s experience of God bears little relation to our experience of God we can either question our experience or theirs. As the diagram illustrates, the way we relate to others often leads to tribalism.

This kind of tribalism leads to the familiar conflict between followers of the way that can often take precedence over the journey. “They are not real Christians…”

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Sitting at the Table: A Sermon on Acts 11:1-18

When I was younger there was a church I used to walk past every day in the center of town.  It was called St Thomas’ Church.  And as a small boy what an impressive place it was.  There were huge vertical lines that were accentuated by the spacing of ornately carved pillars.  Each window consisted of intricately cut coloured glass creating beautifully illustrated scenes from the bible.  In one window there was ‘The Good Samaritan’ placing the beaten and robbed man upon the back of his donkey.  He was then shown taking the man to be looked after.  Then little gold coins were depicted as little yellow discs of glass being handed over to the innkeeper for his trouble.  In another window there was the last supper.  A simple shared meal between friends that symbolized the relationship God has with the world.  There was this huge table at which people were invited to come and share the Passover.  Jesus sat with his disciples as he welcomed them to come and eat with the God-man.  St Thomas’ was an impressive place.  It was a spectacular place.  When the summer sun shone through the windows and the incense was wafting between the pillars it created a dazzling sight as streaks of reds and blues and greens danced through the air.

Anybody who was anybody would be found there on a Sunday morning.  The Mayor would be there two rows from the front.  Behind him would sit the headmaster in the next pew.  Everyone was highly polished and neatly trimmed.  Partings were always worn and suits were neatly pressed.  Sunday best was the order of the day.  All of the people from the town we lived in who had any kind of status could be found there.  Everyone was ‘just so’.  As you looked around the congregation each Sunday morning you could see lots of white faces and nuclear families.  Mum and dad would bring the two point four children through the big oak doors each week.  In this congregation everyone was the “right type of person”.  There was no one in this place who could really be called “poor”.  Over the years plenty of people had come in and quickly gone back out because they soon realized that they weren’t the “right type of person”.  Here at St Thomas’, people in need were out of the question.  People with the wrong kind of accent need not apply.  If you are going to grace a pew, make sure your surname isn’t Unpronounceableovic.  Heaven forbid you would have a different coloured skin!

There was one family who attended for many years.  Mum and dad and 2.4 children happily coming to church each Sunday.  Dad had a good job and a company car.  Mum stayed at home and looked after the children.  The cracks started to appear when dad was made redundant.  Gone was the company car. Then one thing led to another and their marriage broke down.  It is hard work going to church when you find out that after ten years you are no longer the “right kind of people”.  Suddenly mum was taking the 2.4 children to St Thomas’ by herself.  No one said anything directly to her but she could tell.  There were conversations that would suddenly stop whenever she approached.  There were cups of tea passed to her with a knowing smile.  After a couple of weeks the energy it required to get the kids out of bed, dressed and ready for church was just not there.  The small nuclear family stopped being the “right sort of people” each Sunday morning.  As you might imagine, St Thomas’ did not receive many new members.  Its members simply grew older.

Years later as an adult I learned that St Thomas’ Church had closed.  There just weren’t enough of the “right type” of people.  They just didn’t exist, I guess.  One time I went back to that town and there I was passing beside the familiar gothic architecture and the ornately carved pillars.  St Thomas’ church building was still standing only now it was a restaurant.  Oddly given the history of the previous occupants of the building it was a curry house called the Indian Cottage.  I walked in through those massive gothic doors and where there had once been pews, now there were tables, waiters, and people eating dinner.  Candles were lit at each table and people were eagerly tearing naan breads and pouring fresh glasses of wine.  The familiar hubbub of community meals was all around as the sound of glass upon glass clanking together and laughter filled the building.  As I looked down the nave of the ancient gothic church to where the altar had once sat underneath the image of the last supper, now there were tables. 

A young waiter came over to us and asked if we’d like a table for two.  My wife and I exchanged a glance as I responded to his question with a simple “yes please”.  We were escorted to a table at the back of the restaurant where the sanctuary had once been.  The young man took our coats and pulled out a chair for my wife to sit at.  He asked if we would like to order drinks and I asked for a bottle of the house white.  As he went to get our drinks I began to unfold my serviette and turned to my wife.  As I pulled myself closer to her over the table with said with a hushed tone “Now, I guess everybody is finally welcome to eat at this table”.

What is “The Gospel”?

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There is an inherent inner tension that consumes many followers of the way. So many feel the conviction in their beliefs about Jesus but are unsure of how to articulate them to a quizzical world. Surely there must be an easy way to justify our deeply held beliefs? It must be possible to reduce the Christian faith into a suitably strong concentrated form that we can keep in the cupboard like stock cubes. Everyone is looking for something beefy that they can easily unwrap when they need it.

Here Tom Wright subtly reframes the questions people are keen to ask.

Instead of the formulaic reductionism that people seek, Wright frames “the gospel” in the context of something much bigger; the whole story. He sets the life of the Christian within the ongoing narrative of God’s interaction with humanity focussing on the person of Jesus Christ. Can you live with the unending quest for that illusive superficial “cure all”? The easily unwrapped gospel flavouring? Or would you rather focus on something much deeper and richer?

My Chains Fell Off

“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?”

That is just a little excerpt from next Sunday’s reading, a taster if you will.  How often do we look for examples of justice and mercy to illustrate the Christian faith?  Today one dropped in my lap when someone shared it with me.  There is an article in today’s Guardian explaining that Richard Branson has started to encourage Virgin to employ recently released offenders and those who are approaching release as a way of giving people that second chance.

 “Everybody deserves a second chance,” … “One of the prisoners I met in Melbourne told me he’d been released with no money. He had to find his own way to the city. He was thrown back out into this world with no help whatsoever. The end result was that he was back inside in a very short time. For people coming out of prison it’s a vicious circle. If they can’t get a job, the only thing they can do is reoffend. From society’s point of view that can be very painful.”

 

Rob Bell

It doesn’t matter what perspective you come from, if you are in any way involved with Christianity you will probably have an opinion about Rob Bell.  This past weekend at Greenbelt was buzzing with talk of the man who would take to main stage on Saturday morning.  People were intrigued by what he was going to say or do.  Everyone loves a a scandal or controversy.  Later when talking with people about who they had seen so far, Rob Bell seemed to be the topic of conversation that they would inevitably return to.

I don’t really have an opinion about the Rob Bell I saw at Greenbelt weekend.  When I went to the big top for a later talk he was sitting on the grass four feet in front of us.  I can confirm that Rob Bell is a mortal man.  He eyeballed me as he left the venue and they are very much the eyes of a normal guy looking down the road in front of him. 

There is a much more interesting take on the engaging nature of an encounter with Rob Bell on John Khurt’s blog.  Here there is a fascinating post entitled “An Atheist’s Encounter With Rob Bell”.  I suggest you read the whole thing as it is a great read.  For now I will leave you the concluding paragraph (spoiler alert).

We live in in an age of continuous scientific development and this continues to raises doubts about all forms of faith. Rob Bell and like-minded Christians offer a potential conduit towards the restoration of credibility for Christianity. Furthermore, from a self-interested perspective, although not ‘a believer’, I feel more involved and included and, most importantly, open and curious towards faith and the message of Jesus.

Whatever your view of “that bookthis is the sort of encounter with Christianity that the world is seeking.

The Envisioning Lab

One of the most interesting things I have watch recently is Secrets of the Superbrands – Technology.  I blogged about it briefly when it came out as the view of Apple as a religious phenomenon was fascinating.  However, the programme raised a different question with me related to the other guys.  The uncool guys.  The geeky guys.  Microsoft.

Microsoft is investing large quantities of its time and its money not on the here and now but on the future.  Microsoft have realised that they are going to disappear if they do not address the disconnect between their brand image and their products.  They are contemplating the “cool stuff” of the future.

Let’s put aside the many prejudices that those who inhabit the internet seem to exhibit whenever Microsoft are mentioned.  Let’s not have the boring “Apple vs Windows” as it isn’t relevant [sorry Linux guys, I don’t have the cognitive capacity to work out how to integrate you into this rumble in cyberspace].  I’m not asking about the issues around marketing that are brought up.  I’m not concerned about the “hipness” of a brand.  I want to know this:

What are the church doing to facilitate their “Envisioning Lab”?  Who is investing in the creative possibilities?  Who is being given the space to push the envelope?  Who is being allowed to think those thoughts?  How is the church investing in “the church of the future”?

Love and Judgement

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I spotted this on a door I just passed.